In our last Rust or Lust, we determined that despite the odds, the Dodge Neon SRT-4 was worthy of our begrudging, nay, bemused admiration. Of course, that schizophrenic little monster was unnaturally aspirated and similarly unnaturally FWD. Today’s contender is more conventional, sporting a straight-six out front driving the rear wheels. What is it, a Dodge Dart? Think again …
This Week’s Car: the 2001-2005 Lexus IS300
What exactly is the IS300? It wears a few different hats – you might be familiar with the US version’s BMW 325i-fighting aspirations, but it’s worth noting that the car wasn’t originally designed to be a direct 3-series competitor. Nope, the Toyota Altezza was originally just going to be a nice RWD, sub-luxury Toyota sedan, in line with the similarly-purposed Cresta and Chaser. However, in translation to the US market, where such in-between car genres are less appreciated, the Altezza was transformed into the IS, a luxo-sports sedan poised to fight BMW.
And fight BMW it did. Not in sheer numbers, because it never sold as well as any of its European competitors, but in terms of simply being able to compete on the playing field at all. While Japanese sedans had some successes like the 1989-1994 Nissan Maxima “4DSC” – four-door sports car – they couldn’t match the big boys in refinement or sportiness. No front-wheel drive Integra, no matter how well-balanced, was ever going to go head-to-head with a BMW 325i.
So the audacity of the IS300 should be evident. The 3.0L 2JZ-GE engine is, as I’ve mentioned before, an absolutely wonderful motor. Powering all sorts of Lexuses and Toyotas, it was once described in a publication I can’t remember as “like a sewing machine” with highly precise, refined running. I think maybe “fine Swiss watch” is a better analogy than sewing machine, but hey, to each their own. In the IS, it made 215 HP, a healthy but not revolutionary. That being said, it was more powerful than 2 of its 3 E46 rivals, the 323i and the 328i, but slightly less powerful than the 330i.
Raw power is less important that poise in a sedan like this. The IS300 was lighter than the more powerful 330i, and despite some pronounced understeer, was most definitely a driver’s car. Good feedback from the helm and precise line control (at least until the understeer limit was reached) meant that a twisty road was pretty fun, especially compared to an ES300. Couple that with powerful brakes and an eager engine, and it was not a terrible combination.
But as the understeer might alert you, it also wasn’t really going to take the crown from the 3-series in the driving department. The suspension was also harsh over bumps, the cabin occasionally loud, and the steering was overboosted. That, and until 2002, it was only available with a Tiptronic-style 5-speed automatic that didn’t leave much (including upshifts) up to the driver. Finally, there was the love-it-or-hate-it “chronograph-style” gauge cluster. While it admirably retained a separate tachometer, the speedometer studded with ancillary gauges like some sort of super-size TAG Heuer watch was polarizing at best.
the Verdict: LUST
Does that doom our IS to a terrible fate? No, because most of the faults can be fixed by the aftermarket, or by simply not comparing the car to its rivals. First of all, it’s fundamentally a Toyota built around one of the most highly-developed inline six engines ever produced, so after the human race has vanished the highly evolved cockroaches that will take our place are sure to appreciate its balance of style and refinement. Add some forced induction or suspension, and simply ignore any M3 that ever dances into your sight, and you’ll be happy as a clam.